Whither the digital textbook?

At NSF-sponsored panel, scientific debate over what the textbook of the future might look like and how soon we'll get there.

What will the textbook of the future look like? Will it be a tiny hand-held device loaded with web links? Will the tomb of trigonometry be simply downloaded onto a PC? Or perhaps a series of articles compiled by professors and accessed on a prepaid site? These were some of the ideas tossed about at the National Science Foundation-sponsored “Reconsidering the Textbook” workshop in Washington last week, reports Inside Higher Ed. One things the invitees, including publishers, scholars and award recipients, could agree on was that technology is changing fast but the stalwart textbook has remained static.

Steven Rasmussen, president of math textbook publisher Key Curriculum Press, said that, if left to publishers, change might be slow. “Publishers tend to do what they can sell,” Rasmussen said. “The economics are not driving change, but the status quo. The change away from textbooks would be expensive.”

The problem is that technology changes so quickly that it’s hard to assess the impact of technology in teaching. There's a big question mark hanging over the question, "What’s the best technology-driven delivery method?"

Faculty members agreed that the Internet has made information so easily and quickly available that the role of the textbook as a comprehensive reference has been diminished. The next evolution of the textbook, many of the attendees suggested, might be more as an island of credibility amidst the ocean of information, signifying what information is reputable.

Ultimately, the movement towards electronic textbooks might have to wait for the die-off of older educators, scientists and publishers who are simply less comfortable with technology than more recent generations.

Harry Ungar, an NSF program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education, who formerly taught chemistry at Cabrillo College in California, said that, for a course like organic chemistry, where the body of knowledge isn’t changing, the textbook provides a good narrative. “I like the textbook,” he said.

Kathleen Parson, program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education, replied: “And look at the color of your hair.” It was white.

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